Few places on Earth venerate grief and penitence so passionately, or centre an entire celebration on such sombre notions as guilt and death, as Holy Week in Ecuador.
With an emphasis on passionate, yet anonymous, displays of penitence and atonement, 200,000 of Ecuador’s most devoted Catholics self-flagellate, carry bone-breakingly heavy crosses, and bleed from self-inflicted wounds: all while dressed in macabre purple cone hats masking their faces, dramatic capes, or wrapped in barbed wire, accompanied by fervent, nightmarish live music.
The tradition, though faithful to its original form, has taken hundreds of years to arrive at its current incarnation, and unlike many religious festivities, continues to grow in size and popularity.
These centuries of heritage form part of Quito’s brand: since it was the first city to be declared UNESCO world heritage site in 1978 the conservation of this legacy has become its greatest selling point.
But as well as the heavy sense of tradition, visitors come to witness the eerie devotion of the participants of the march, and the colour and verve with which they display it.
Quito’s unique Holy Week celebrations, especially the dramatic Good Friday procession, would appear to originate from the very essence of the Ecuadorian capital: its devotion and passion, sense of tradition and duty, colour and feasting.
Yet the customs are not as singular as they appear, inherited instead from Spain, more specifically the southern city of Seville.
The ritual of marking the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus with such fervour dates back to Mediaeval times, when in 1265 Alfonso X of Castile passed a ‘code of laws’ known as Las Siete Partidas to honour God and the saints. The swing towards exuberant displays of Christian devotion was a backlash to the years of Muslim rule in Andalusia, the region in which Seville is located.
The city became Spain’s largest, and the point of departure for the West Indies, between its re-conquest 1248 and the “discovery” of America in 1492. It was in Seville that the inquisition was founded in 1481, an ambitious project of evangelization that swept the Americas, including Quito.
It is in that way that the spectacular and grandiose processions, with their Baroque imagery, can be understood: a mass marketing of religious tactics of attracting devotion with displays of devotion, encouraging “salvation through penance.”
Though it might seem unthinkable due to its massive popularity and attendance today, Quito’s Holy Week celebrations were once outlawed, threatened with being consigned to the shelves of history like so many other religious festivities.
Throughout 19th century all citizens were part of the procession, from the indigenous to the city’s mayor, marching in collective atonement. But the lavish parades were seen as vulgar by puritanical Europeans.
In 1865 Austrian traveller and travel book writer Ida Pfeiffer witnessed Quito’s Good Friday procession and said, “The Pope ought to urgently send this country a good set of noble and dignified punishments to put an end to such nonsense and scandal.”
At the turn of the 20th century, Liberals led by Eloy Alfaro banned public expressions of religion, encouraging instead freedom of worship. Although Alfaro didn’t order the destruction of churches like some of his Latin American counterparts, he did force religious celebrations off the streets and behind closed doors, and the Semana Santa celebrations did not see the light of day for half a century.
In 1949, a very small procession entered cautiously back out to the streets, only to be banned again until 1961. In that year, the Franciscans held a procession in the name of Jesus del Gran Poder – a statue said to have been carved in 1620 in balsawood, a symbol revered by Quiteños.
Since then, the procession has happened rain or shine, amassing hundreds of thousands of followers.
The church of San Francisco, and the Franciscan religious order who populate it, plays a pivotal role in the Holy Week celebrations.
Franciscans are the weightiest religious order in Latin America, once having represented some 75 percent of all religious presence throughout the region. In their 400-year presence in Quito they continue their position of iconic institution of the daily life of the city.
San Francisco was Quito’s first church – from here they began evangelising natives – and it is now one of the largest religious complexes in the Americas. It marks the beginning and the end points of the Good Friday procession, where the devoted flock to in order to pay their dues.
Carnaval to begin Lent – irreverence to give you something to repent
In other Catholic countries, the beginning of Lent leading up to the Easter period is marked by chaotic street parties and debauched parades: Brazil’s colourful Carnaval a case in point.
Quito’s version is modest in comparison, with participants playfully throwing water at each other, though once city authorities had to all-but cut off supplies to prevent the senseless wasting of water.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday – a Jewish tradition of covering yourself in ash as a symbol of sacrifice and regeneration, kicking off the period of fasting.
In Quito’s Historic Centre it is not unusual see people with their foreheads smudged with ash made from burned dried stalks from the previous year’s Palm Sunday bouquets.
In times gone by such was the seriousness of the Lent period that people were not allowed to go out on weekends, radios only played classical music and TV only played religious movies. On Fridays, no meat was consumed.
Today, the symbolic fasting representing Jesus’s 40 days and nights in the wilderness has been bastardised by the western tradition of giving up luxury or unhealthy foods, taken advantage by some to quit smoking, or lose a few pounds.
Arrastre de Caudas – the dragging of the capes
With their black, sweeping cloaks, the clergy pass through the cathedral to ominous music, before dropping to the floor, like crumpled sacks. This is one of Quito’s most theatrical and eerie Holy Week celebrations.
The Arrastre de Caudas, or Dragging of the Capes, is a high clergy ritual practiced only in Quito, Lima and Seville. In fact, such was its secrecy that it was only made public a few years ago, having been celebrated since the 16th century.
To preserve the ceremony it is promoted in Quito with flourish, projected onto screens outside the cathedral.
With a Da Vincii code, cultish quality, the ceremony is an adaptation of a Roman ritual to pay homage to Christ, their own “fallen general”.
Proceedings begin at midday at the Metropolitan Cathedral, officiated by the Archbishop of Quito. Entering to solemn funeral music played on the organ, seminaries hold flickering candles, canons are covered in their floor-length black cloaks, while the deacon carries the Lignum Crucis, a cross made with precious stones and gems and – according to legend – fragments from the actual cross of Christ.
The canons, whose average age is 80, then kneel on red velvet cushions by the altar, as the deacon takes the Lignum Crucis to the pulpit and places it on the altar. The gold, purple and white-clad archbishop, accompanied by bishops, recites prayers, psalms and hymns.
There is then a funeral procession, as the canons begin their slow march from the choir around the Cathedral, their cloaks dragging on the floor, symbolically sweeping up the sins of humanity.
Just behind follows a member of the order who wears across his back the flag of resurrection, emblazoned with a red cross. When the procession arrives back at the altar, the canons lie flat on the floor, representing Jesus’s dead body, and the flag is swept over their heads to pay tribute to the fallen general.
As the archbishop waves the great flag, some participants, fearing that death comes to those it touches, duck away, while others are steadfast, happy to receive the “spirit of the Lord.”
The ceremony ends with the banging three times of the flag pole on the ground, each bang a day of Christ’s in the tomb. The canons rise on the third, just as Jesus did on the third day, and a blessing is given.
This long day of ceremony is the commemoration of Last Supper, Washing of the Feet, Agony in the Garden, Betrayal, and Outrage.
Early in the morning the Chrism, or anointing mass, is celebrated in the Cathedral, and the archbishop consecrates oil.
Late that afternoon, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper takes place, with the ritual of Washing the Feet. It is celebrated at several churches, including San Francisco and the Cathedral, at a time just before sunset, when traditionally the Passover meal begins.
The Eucharist is celebrated, with the unleavened bread and Christ’s words: “This is my body, this is my blood, do this in memory of me.”
During the mass, there is a re-enactment of the feet washing, with 12 people representing 12 apostles. In a special procession, the blessed hosts are carried to the altar and placed inside the tabernacle, entombed, like Christ, until Friday.
The emphasis of the ceremonies is on penitents, the mass of people seeking repentance anonymously, who come from all over Ecuador.
The idea of penitence again originated in Seville in the mid-fifteenth century. Self-flagellation was one of the key symbols, a method heartily embraced by Franciscans.
The nightmarish Cucurucho is the central figure of the procession. Silent and anonymous, with a dark purple robe, and a cone headdress, their face is covered, save for two eye holes.
The tradition is said to originate in the Middle Ages, when priests forced sinners to stand outside the church for days and nights allowing everyone to see their shame.
Today, they are seen as choosing anonymity to copy the humility of Christ, so as not to flaunt their repentance, though some people wrap their cones in aluminium to stand out from the crowd.
Until recently the only option open for women was to attend the procession as a Veronica, wearing transparent veils, representing the woman from the bible who washed Jesus’s face in pity. Now women also march as Cucuruchos.
Others, dressed as Jesus, bring their own crosses, as heavy as they can bear. Once, a man broke his leg under the weight of the colossal structure, leaving pool of blood on the pavement. Look out for “techno Christ” whose cross flashes with neon lights.
There are the Baroque penitents who paint fake blood on their faces and entwine their bodies with barbed wire, sometimes causing real-life wounds, as the Salve Gran Senora song plays repeatedly throughout, music that originated from Andean traditions but given Spanish religious verse.
There are holy effigies, some with real hair, who are dressed and spruced up days before the processions. Statues of the Virgen have their own wardrobes with the clothes donated by worshipers.
Good Friday is the main celebration in Quito, even greater than Easter Sunday.
The procession of Jesus del Gran Poder (Jesus Almighty), begins and ends at San Francisco main square – Casa Gangotena’s third-floor terrace offers the best view for miles!
The Thursday night before a frantic process begins of cleaning planks to assemble platforms to carry images of the Virgen, the Lord, and Saint John the Baptist through Quito.
People begin to arrive at San Francisco around 6AM, leaving bouquets and decorations to be placed on the platforms, which won’t be ready until around 10AM. The 2,000 people, who will march as Cucuruchos and Verónicas, assemble at the rear of the San Francisco complex, while police and secret agents lend at hand to keep things in order.
Regular police arrive at 8AM, with Special Forces keeping an eagle eye on the relic sculptures. They will later be rewarded for their troubles with a free meal.
One man, Washington Moreno, has been handing out the 1,000 purple cloaks and head cones to participants since the 1990s. From 8AM he hands them out to the registered Cucuruchos (some 500 more will join later, wearing their own costumes).
Around 10.30AM the participants pass through the Passageway of Anguish, a low archway connecting the Friar’s School to the convent courtyards before leading to the church.
At 11.30AM, the platforms bearing the holy images are brought out to the atrium, where an enormous crowd has gathered.
Here, Pontius Pilate’s sentencing of Christ is read aloud, an act that each year causes an eerie silence to sweep across the crowd and the entire city, bringing tears to the eyes of onlookers. Then, the platforms begin their journey through the streets, precariously carried by the devoted.
Shirtless men with crowns of thorns carrying back-breakingly heaving crosses and poles. Some faint in the process. The procession, a mass of purple, moves like a river of blood.
A funeral march plays on loop by local bands, stopping at various stations for prayers.
At around 4.30 PM the procession returns to the atrium of San Francisco, and the archbishop leads a one-and-a-half-hour ceremony called “The Veneration of the cross.”
Families make their way home to feast on fanesca, Ecuador’s traditional Easter soup that fills them up for days with its 12 beans, cheese, milk, cod and empanadas for decoration. The fast is over.